The use of aromatic plant extracts and essential oils for healing and cosmetic purposes is called aromatherapy.
This therapy uses the essential oils extracted from plants and herbs to treat conditions ranging from infections and skin disorders to immune deficiencies and stress. Essential oils are widely used throughout Europe and a system of medical aromatherapy is currently practised in France.
Aromatherapy is one of those rare forms of treatment that can improve your quality of life, whether or not it has any other benefits. That's just as well, because few doctors believe it has any significant effects on health. Whatever relief it confers, they speculate, stems from emotional response to aromatherapy's pleasing scents, rather than any physiological effects. Used as a comforting ritual to reduce stress, enhance relaxation, and relieve anxiety, aromatherapy may indeed improve your well-being, relieve psychosomatic symptoms, and alleviate some emotionally related disorders. For some people, it has provided a respite from insomnia. Others have found it an effective remedy for impotence. A few people even report that it eases the pain of arthritis and relieves post-partum discomfort. However, medical science can find no physical reason for these effects.
Procedure of Treatment
Although many gift boutiques have taken to marketing scented candles, pomanders and potpourri as 'aromatherapy', genuine treatments rely on the use of highly concentrated essential oils extracted from various healing herbs. In most cases, these oils are produced by steam distillation or cold pressing from a plant's flowers, leaves, branches, bark, rind or roots. The volatile, flammable oils are then mixed with a 'carrier' - usually a vegetable oil such as soy, evening primrose or almond - or diluted in alcohol before being applied to the skin, sprayed in the air, or inhaled. Although you can pursue treatments under the supervision of a certified aromatherapist, many people simply use the oils as a form of home remedy. These is a notable lack of agreement on such issues as the amount of oil necessary to achieve a desired effect, the most effective method of administration and the length of time necessary to continue treatment. However, some of the more typical approaches are as follows:
Inhalation: For problems with respiration, try adding 6 to 12 drops of essential oils to a bowl of steaming water. Place a towel over your head, and deep breathe the scented vapours.
Diffusion: Aromatherapists often suggest spraying oil-containing compounds into the air. This technique is said to calm the nerves, enhance a feeling of well being and even improve respiratory conditions. In any case, it freshens the air. Commercially available spray units can be used. Add ten drops of an essence to seven tablespoons of water. If you will not be using the entire amount at one time, add one teaspoonful of vodka or pure alcohol as a preservative. Shake the mixture and fill the sprayer.
Massage: Rubbing aromatic oil into the skin may be either calming or stimulating, depending on the type of oil used. Some people use it as a remedy for muscles sprains and soreness. Most preparations contain five drops of essential oil blended with a light base oil. A higher concentration could irritate the skin.
Bathing: Use no more than eight drops in a bath. Add the oil to a tubful of water. You can also add ten to fifteen drops to a jacuzzi or hot tub, four to five drops to a foot bath, or three to four drops to a hand bath (for chapped skin). If you shower, after washing yourself, dip a wet sponge or cloth in an oil-water mixture and apply to your skin while you are under the spray. Do not use this technique if you have any skin allergies.
Hot and cold compresses: For muscle aches or pains, bruises or headaches add five to ten drops of oil to approximately four ounces of water. Soak a cloth in the solution and apply to the sore area. Other aromatherapy techniques include placing two or three drops of essential oil on a pillow or shoe rack, heating the essential oil in a ring burner, or sprinkling the oil over the logs in a fireplace.
WARNING: Never take aromatherapy oils internally. They are extremely potent and many can be poisonous.
Fragrant oils have been used for thousands of years to lubricate the skin, purify infectious air and repel insects. However, aromatherapy as we know it today dates from the late 1930s when René-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist, dunked his badly burned hand into a container of pure lavender oil. Amazingly, the pain and redness disappeared and the burn healed within hours. In later experiments he found that other oils also alleviated skin problems. Other French scientists who were impressed with his research, developed techniques that are still in use today. Aromatherapy first appeared on this side of the Atlantic in the early 19802, when there was an upsurge in the popularity of 'natural', non-toxic healing methods that cost less than conventional medications and produce fewer side-effects. Practitioners in California used essential oils to treat everything from viral and bacterial infections to depression, anxiety and sexually transmitted diseases. They insisted aromas could heal wounds, stimulate immune system, cure skin disorders, improve circulation, relieve pain, reduce swelling and even improve memory. According to these enthusiastic therapists, fragrant oils had the power to heal malfunctioning ovaries, kidneys, veins, adrenal glands and many other organs. However, none of these claims has even been made at all, and of those, only a few have delivered promising results. In one trial for arthritis pain, some of the participants were able to reduce the dosage of their potent anti-inflammatory drugs. In another study, the scent of lavender successfully put insomniacs to sleep. Other research has documented improvement in cases of erectile dysfunction, and a reduction in pain following childbirth. However, attempts to prove that aromatherapy can cure shingles have failed (although fragrant creams can reduce some of the pain). And a 1958 paper extolling the ability of essential oils to fight and conquer infections could cite no positive human or animal tests. Advocates of aromatherapy propose a variety of mechanisms for its reported effects. The most widely accepted theory suggests that fragrances do their work via the brain. When aromatic molecules enter the nasal cavity and stimulate the odour-sensing nerves, the resulting impulses are sent to the limbic system - the part of the brain that's believed to be the seat of memory and emotion. Depending on the sent, emotional responses then kick in to exert a calming or energizing effect on the body. Alternatively, some proponents suggest that certain aromas may work by stimulating the glands, prompting the adrenal glands, for example, to produce steroid-like hormones that fight pain and inflammation. Others believe that the essential oils, whether inhaled or rubbed into the skin, react with hormones and enzymes in the bloodstream to produce positive results. Whatever the truth of the matter, aromatherapists assign specific properties to each essence. Here are typical claims for some of the more common essential oils.
Lavender: Heals burns and cuts; destroys bacteria; relieves depression, inflammation, spasms, headaches, respiratory allergies, muscle aches, nausea, menstrual cramps; soothes bug bites; lowers blood pressures.
Peppermint: Alleviates digestive problems; cleans wounds; decongests the chest; relieves headache, neuralgia and muscle pain; useful for motion sickness.
Eucalyptus: Lowers fever; clears sinuses; has antibacterial and antiviral properties; relieves coughs; useful for boils and pimples.
Tea Tree: Fights fungal, yeast, and bacterial infections; useful for skin conditions such as acne, insect bites and burns; helps clear vaginitis, bladder infections and thrush.
Rosemary: Relieves pain; increases circulation; decongests the chest; relieves pain, indigestion, gas and liver problems; lessens swelling; fights infection; helps alleviate depression.
Chamomile: Reduces swelling; treats allergic symptoms; relieves stress, insomnia and depression; useful in treating digestive problems.
Thyme: Lessens laryngitis and coughs; fights bladder and skin infections; relieves digestive problems and pain in the joints.
Tarragon: Stimulates digestion; calms neural and digestive tracts; relieves menstrual symptoms and stress.
Everlasting: Heals scars; reduces swelling after injuries; relieves sunburn; fights infections such as bronchitis and flu; treats pain from arthritis, muscle injuries, sprains and strains, tendonitis.
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
Many essential oils can trigger bronchial spasms. If you have asthma, do not use any form of aromatherapy without first consulting your doctor. If you have any skin allergies, do not use essential oils in your bath. To check whether you are allergic to an oil, place one drop on the inside of your elbow and wait for 24 hours to see if it produces a reaction. As with any medication, it's best to avoid aromatherapy during pregnancy. Be especially wary of sage, rosemary and juniper oils. These herbs have been known to cause uterine contractions when taken in excessive amounts. Infants and young children are especially sensitive to potent essential oils. Keep the oils away from their faces. Do not use peppermint oil on children under the age of 30 months.
Because essential oils are highly concentrated, taking them internally can easily lead to a toxic overdose. Do not ingest the tiniest amount without your doctor's approval. Except for lavender, do not use any highly concentrated, undiluted oils on your skin. Be careful to keep the oils away from your eyes. Close your eyes while inhaling aromatic vapours. Many essential oils will cause skin irritation if used too frequently. They can also increase your sensitivity to sunlight, making it easier to burn. Excessive inhalation of fragrant vapours can cause headache and fatigue. Remember, too, that certain oils such as peppermint, can cause insomnia rather than relieving it.